WASHINGTON – Chris Dennis is the college student's everyman,struggling to pay his way through school.
The 26-year-old freshman lost a year of course credit when he transferred to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro last year. After a death in the family caused him to withdraw from school for a semester,he went on financial suspension,losing his federal aid.
Now,in addition to a full course load,he works three jobs to support himself and his wife as they wait for his Pell Grant to be renewed,probably in the fall.
Dennis was happy to hear that President Bush's 2008 budget would boost to Pell funding.
“I could quit a job,maybe,and just be a regular person with,like,two jobs and school,” he said.
Dennis's potential R&R would be thanks to a 2008 budget that proposes increasing the maximum annual award from $4,050 to $4,600 in 2008 and to $5,400 by 2012.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a conference call press briefing Monday that a college education is becoming a prerequisite to entering the workforce and that government funding needs to assist students in meeting that requirement.
“We believe that the Pell Grant is the best place to do that,” she said. “We're strongly supportive of private-sector lending,but I think it's important for us to not compromise access for students in this process,as resources are scarce.”
Pell Grants go to students based on their income,cost of tuition and whether they attend classes full time.
On the flip side of the increase,the new budget eliminates funding for Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants,which are given to schools to dole out to students. Priority is given to students also receiving Pell Grants,but SEOG's can go to anyone the school deems deserving.
Tom Skelly,director of budget services for the Education Department,allowed that some student could receive less money,at least initially,if they formerly received both types of grants.
“The idea of the Pell Grant proposal is to give as much as $550 more in the first year and $200 more in each of the next four years,so by the time you get to the second or third year,that money … is going to be much higher for everybody than SEOG's,” he said.
One other program is zeroed out in the 2008 budget. The Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships were forged with states to help them set up grant programs for students. According to a representative in Spellings's office,though,the program has served its usefulness and is no longer needed.
“We think it's a great idea to increase the Pell Grant,but it's a long overdue move,” said Sandy Baum,senior policy analyst at the College Board. She said the administration needs to design a comprehensive aid plan to make sure no students suffer.
“I think we're very happy that students have come to be so high on the agenda,” Baum said,”and we hope that the changes that are made will be made carefully and thoughtfully and with the needs of low- and moderate-income students in mind.”
Dennis,the collegiate everyman,had received just over $1,100 in Pell money for his $4,000 annual tuition costs before he was placed on financial suspension. Under the president's new budget,Dennis,along with every other student eligible for a Pell Grant,could receive an increase.
Dennis said he is able to pay his tuition without loans,but believes the government should do more to help those students who cannot. The Pell Grant increase for a student who is already receiving the full amount of money would be invaluable,he said.
“Just because you're poor doesn't mean you're stupid,” he said. “To totally negate somebody for higher education just because of their social class,I think,is asinine. And I think the government should step in and lend a helping hand,at least.”